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The Charming Island of Madeira

Our agents travel to some pretty awesome destinations. When they return, our excitement to hear about their adventures is almost as great as their excitement is to share them. In ON LOCATION, they talk about the little nuances that make each place special. From Peru to South Africa, Switzerland, and Croatia, experience a fantastic second-hand journey and maybe take away some travel inspiration while you’re at it.


Tristin fact checks your presumptions about seafood and urban tobogganing.

I’ve never heard of Madeira, where is it? Madeira is an island outside of Portugal. You fly into Lisbon, Portugal and from Lisbon you go over to Madeira.

What makes it more than just another island? They have a lot of diversity and history on Madeira! I’m sure you’re aware of the Christ the Redeemer statue located in Rio de Janeiro? They actually have one in Madeira, but it’s the first one built, the original statue. The one in Rio was built to match the one in Madeira. We visited an amazing market every day that was within walking distance from our hotel. We also did a group catamaran tour and saw four different species of dolphins, which was pretty incredible.

There are also these amazing natural pools on the other side of the island that were formed from the lava; the ocean will fill them up when the tide comes in. You can swim in them. We spent the whole day there. It’s all made from the volcano but they paved walking paths and platforms on the outside of the ponds. There’s even little fish inside the ponds and rock tunnels you can swim under to get to other pools. That was one of the highlights.

Are the locals very welcoming? They’re so friendly, very welcoming, and very proud of their island so they love to show people around. If you are lost, or appear to be lost, they approach you. The locals down at the market are also super friendly. I just fell in love with the people. It’s probably my favorite country out of the ones I’ve visited thus far because of the people, the culture, and the sites. It’s just fun and colorful and friendly.

I know you love seafood, how does Madeira rate? The island is known for their fresh seafood, I ate it as much as I could. They catch it that day and you’re eating it for dinner later that evening. They had a fish market so every day all the fisherman had their fresh catch of the day for sale. We loved the black scabbardfish, but the scabbardfish would go fast. You would have to get there by a certain time or they would be sold out. Restaurants also have these bread bowls called bola do caco that they bring out with garlic butter which was one of my favorite things to eat. They also have good, fresh tuna and octopus. They served octopus with almost every appetizer.

Last time I ate octopus it was slimy and rubbery. When I ate it in Madeira, it wasn’t rubbery. I actually learned it’s not supposed to be rubbery, you have to cook it a certain way. I didn’t know that until then but apparently the more rubbery it is, the less fresh it is. I’m usually not a huge octopus fan because I don’t like the texture, but it was actually really good in Madeira.

Earlier you talked about pools formed from lava, is there an active volcano? It’s not active but they have these amazing craters throughout the island. There is this town called Nun’s Valley which was built inside the volcano, it was really cool. There is this look-out that you kind of hike up to, it’s a pretty easy hike up paved stairs, but it takes you up pretty high and you can see the whole valley. Then if you want you can actually drive down and see the little town. The village is very isolated and locals mainly live off what they grow. The local chestnuts are delicious and used in every day cooking. We went to this local bakery that our cab driver recommended where I had an espresso and my husband had a beer. With a few pastries, the whole bill came to 4 euros (4.51 American).

Wow, that’s it? So Madeira isn’t some destination solely for the rich. It is a very affordable place. I was surprised, even traveling throughout the rest of Portugal, how inexpensive it was.

If someone only had time to do one thing, what should they do? That is so hard; there is so much to do. I would say go visit the island…Oh I forgot to tell you the coolest thing! You can take a gondola up the mountain and then you can ride a toboggan down the paved road. They’ve been doing this since the 30’s or 40’s.

On wheels? No, it’s almost like skis. Two men push you down the hill and when it gets steep they hop on the back and they have to maneuver because there is traffic both ways. It’s a little scary at first but it’s so much fun. Everyone has to do it. When the road flattens out, they have to pull and steer you, then when it gets steeper, they run beside you. So we’re at the top of the mountain, and this one guy tells us he has been doing it for 60 years. He is one of the originals. I was worried about him because it’s manual labor and he has to work hard pushing and pulling the toboggan with two people inside. The toboggan goes as fast as a bike and is at least a 10-minute ride. He had to be in very good shape.

Back to my earlier the question: one day spend on Madeira, what do I do? If people only had a day to spend, those natural pools that I mentioned were so amazing, but I suppose I’d tell them to do the toboggan and go see Nun’s Valley. The pools are on the other side of the island and you can experience more of the culture by staying in Funchal.

Anything else you would like to mention? If people are into soccer, (Cristiano) Ronaldo arguably the best player in the world, was born and raised in Madeira so they have this huge museum dedicated to him.

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